Let’s focus on the positive: A new Wu-Tang Clan album, 8 Diagrams, exists. That, in and of itself, fans will tell you, is something of a miracle.
It’s been six years since the world’s second-most-dysfunctional rap group (No. 1? The Fugees, by far) has managed to get into the studio together. Why? Who the hell knows. If the Wu-Tang Clan weren’t so frustratingly enigmatic, we probably wouldn’t care as much. When this ragtag crew of hyperliterate, kung-fu-obsessed emcees from the projects of Staten Island and East New York emerged with Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) in 1993, they were like nothing the rap world had ever seen. (Their philosophies and influences—the Supreme Mathematics of Islam, a Shaolin monk, chess—were so complicated that in 2005, the group’s mastermind, RZA, came out with a guide called The Wu-Tang Manual.) Then, as part of RZA’s five-year plan “to take over one third of the industry,” they flooded the market with solo releases, most of which stand up among the best hip-hop albums of the nineties. When their second album, Wu-Tang Forever, came out in 1997, it debuted at No. 1, selling 600,000 copies in its first week.
The fever may have died down these days, but fans are still out there. On the way to meet Cappadonna, a longtime Wu “affiliate,” at Sylvia’s in Harlem, I pulled out my Wu-Tang Manual on the subway and was beset by three young men in a row who all wanted to tell me stories about that time they met RZA in a bookstore or debate the latest internal Wu-Tang beef. At Sylvia’s, our waiter pounced on Cappadonna: “That first album, me and my brother got it on tape and we played it till it popped!” Nor are celebrities immune. At a party, I mentioned Wu-Tang to Saturday Night Live’s resident joke-rapper Andy Samberg, and he immediately offered his and Seth Rogen’s services as quote machines (Wu-Tang really seem to connect with dorky white guys). But when I told him I was writing about 8 Diagrams, he couldn’t contain his disappointment. “Wu-Tang for me is about those first albums,” he said.
Talking to fans about late-period Wu-Tang is almost painful. They’re pissed off about the Clan’s last album, 2001’s Iron Flag, a disjointed attempt to flirt with the mainstream. And they feel abandoned. In late 2004, the Clan’s beloved, unreliable mess Ol’ Dirty Bastard missed a concert. Nothing new. “There’s no one bigger than the Clan,” Method Man barked at the crowd. “When you see Ol’ Dirty Bastard, tell him that.” The next day ODB died at a recording studio from an accidental drug overdose.
Increasingly, everyone in the Clan has just been doing his own thing. Method Man plays a drug dealer on The Wire; RZA scores movies for Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino; and most of the others have been lying low—though GZA did appear in an “ad” for Wu-Tang Financial on Chappelle’s Show (“Because you and your fam can’t be relying on wankstas like Smith Barney”). That’s left only Ghostface Killah to represent Wu-Tang. In the past two years he’s blown up, having released three critically adored solo albums and a charming YouTube video he made to advertise a baseball cap he was selling on eBay: “I’ve been in front of Halle Berry with this hat, B!” Now he’s not just a crucial Clan member; he’s also a competitor. When Ghost’s latest album, The Big Doe Rehab, and 8 Diagrams were both set to release on December 4, the Wu-Tang Clan had to change their date to December 11. (Not without a fight, of course.)
Suffice it to say, there’s a pervasive reluctance among Clan members to become a Clan again. “We’re not so much talking to each other,” says Cappadonna, who once took some time away from the group to drive a gypsy cab in Baltimore. “We have lawyers speaking to lawyers now.” This past summer, their first tour since ODB’s death ended with Ghost refusing to enter the studio for 8 Diagrams until finances were settled. (As he put it in his open call to RZA on MTV, “Niggas better pay me my fucking money.”) He eventually relented. “I’m a team player,” Ghost told me over the phone. “[But] we still going through what we going through. Ain’t nothin’ straightened out, love.”
Then Raekwon gave a YouTube interview to Miss Info in which he accused RZA of being a “hip-hop hippie” and cluttering 8 Diagrams with orchestral production and “guitar shit.” He even threatened to start a new project, called “Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang,” with every Clan member except RZA. Ghostface agrees. “RZA did what he wanted to do with the album,” he says. “Me and Rae didn’t really like it. We didn’t feel it was a banger. It has no meaning to it. Everybody’s just rhyming their rhymes. Ain’t no creams on it, know what I’m saying, where niggas got a nice hook and the rhyme come after it. And if it is a hook, it’s not like a bangin’ bangin’ hook. It’s not an album that’s gonna move you, like ‘Oh shit!’ ” (Translation: The album is too dark and weird, and it won’t make any money.)
It’s a rather unorthodox marketing strategy, members of a rap group promoting their album by telling the press how much they don’t like it. But for all the criticism, 8 Diagrams turns out to be surprisingly intriguing. Ghost and Rae are right. It’s not a banger. But it is unmistakably Wu, full of tripped-out images and tense, driving beats that seem to be on the edge of careering out of control. The buzz has been all about “The Heart Gently Weeps,” featuring George Harrison’s son, Dhani, on guitar—it sounds, delightfully, like it was recorded after eight rounds of shots at a karaoke bar. But I keep going back to the screechy, horror-tinged “Unpredictable,” the hilarious “Wolves,” with George Clinton, and “Life Changes,” a tearjerker of an ODB tribute. So what if they don’t still sound like hard-hitting former drug dealers hell-bent on saving rap from commercialism? Almost all of them are edging 40 years old. As RZA told URB, “I think we have the potential to be those grown-ass men that kids want to be.” They just have to start acting like grown-ass men. Get behind their own album. Go on tour without killing each other. “That’s the plan. That’s the idea,” says GZA of the tour and beyond. “Will Wu-Tang show up? It all depends.”n